Is the Blues An Art?

The art of music is one that is extremely complex, transcending the barriers of language, ethnicity, and religion. Depending on who is asked, one may have an opinion on which genres of music they consider to be an art. Some may question the relevance of blues music compared to the works of classical composers. Is it any less of an art due to its simplicity in lyrics and chord structure? I believe that the blues deserves to be considered an art, for how it brings communities together through the passion for music.
Music is an art form that expresses pain, love, and joy; sometimes, all at once. Furthermore, if there is any genre that is capable of expressing such broad range of emotion, it is the blues. Blues music is said to have emerged in West Africa prior to the slave trade. Griots, the common word for “singers” in many West African tribes, would chant during their work day, often reciting a story about war between tribes and European colonization. They would perform with an instrument they carved out of a gourd with strings made out of fishing line. Although the musicians of that timeframe did not play traditional instruments or use complex chord progressions at the time, their music greatly impacted the lifestyles of those around them; workers would utilize “work songs” following the rhythm of wood chopping or digging a shovel into the ground in order for the leader of the song to set the working pace. Work songs then went on to influence some of the early blues artists in the United States, such as Son House, who was well-known for using the work-song pattern with percussive notes on the guitar’s bass strings (E and A) and employing rhythms similar to that of wood chopping. One example is his song “Depot Blues,” which is written in 4/4 (the most common time signature; many pop songs are also written in 4/4) and has eleven full measures along with a pick-up and ending measure, totaling thirteen. The lyrics are as follows:

“I went to the depot and-a / I looked up on the board / I went to the depot / I looked up on the board / Well I couldn’t see no train I couldn’t / hear no whistle blow.”

The pattern of “Depot Blues” follows a similar pattern to that of the ancient work songs; although it does not have a “call and response” method, it is sung and played in a pattern prevalent in both work songs and modern blues music. Beneath is an example of the song’s structure:
I went to the depot and-a I looked up on the board.
(rest)
I went to the depot and I looked up on the board. (He repeats the line)
(three quarter rests)
Well I couldn’t see no train
(shorter rest)
I couldn’t hear no whistle blow.
The song also follows the chord progression format (4):
I-IV-I-I7
IV-IV-I-I
V7-V7-I-I
These patterns would continue to be a trend in blues music for years to come as those inspired would often improvise their own lyrics, following the same chord progressions and syllable count. Due to this simplicity of both content and structure, many have criticized the creativity and artistry of blues music, believing it to be inferior to classical and traditional jazz. Although blues music typically uses repetition in lyrics, it is to further emphasize the message, urging the listener to pay close attention. An example of this is Son House’s autobiographical song, “Preachin’ the Blues.”
Oh, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
Oh, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won’t have to work.
Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray.
Oh, in my room I bowed down to pray.
But the blues came along, and they drove my spirit away.
These lyrics tell an audience a story about the conflict between blues and gospel music during the time the piece was written. Son House sings the message in a chronological order, explaining to the audience that he originally planned to become a Baptist preacher; however, when he discovered the blues, he became acquainted with what was then known as the “devil’s music,” and therefore he believed that he had then lost his salvation. Through these few verses, the listeners have already learned about the history and personality of the writer, much like poetry. Therefore, when asked the question if blues music is truly poetic, one must remember that there is no correct way to write poetry. Just as not all poems rhyme, not all poems reach an epic length; the most important trait that all great poems share is communicating a story that the audience is able to relate to. For example, I can relate to Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues” lyrics, because many adults in my religion believe that my desire to study other religions will cause me to leave my current faith. Therefore, I have often been discouraged from doing such, and I am able to relate to the message Son House is communicating; he was told that the blues was the “devil’s music,” yet he continued to perform it because it was clearly something that brought him comfort and that he enjoyed.
This is an example of how the blues is indeed an art. Because art is subjective, no one person will have the same answer for what it is, as it speaks to us in different ways. However, blues music allows both performers and listeners to express emotions that cannot be easily expressed with spoken word, just as many forms of modern music do as well. Furthermore, while the blues may not be as popular of a genre as it was during the time of its founding, its influence is still prevalent on modern musicians such as Bill Withers, whose “Ain’t No Sunshine” follows the blues chord progression, with heavy emphasis on the bass strings and ad-libbing. Though the music can also be seen as entertainment, I believe that entertainment and art are synonymous. Blues poetry draws listeners in through allowing them to relate to a story, which succeeds in performing the duty of both art and entertainment: to unite seemingly different individuals with similar experiences and emotions.
It is also for these reasons that the simple chord progressions do not invalidate the artistry of blues music; after all, if the repetitive use of four chords means that a song cannot be classified as true art, then most of today’s pop, country, and rap music would also not be considered an art. While the simple progressions may seem elementary compared to the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, the honesty of the lyrics and the rich dynamics of the instruments captivate the audience just as well as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 moves audiences all over the world to this day. While certain genres of music may require more training for musicians, it is important to understand that not any one piece of art is the same; it is not a competition, but a community in which talents and stories are shared. If the art of music was solely based upon the difficulty of the piece, it would be a sport. However, music is so much more than that. It changes lives and opens minds to new concepts, and it will continue to do so for centuries to come. At the end of the day, this is what music is about: learning about others’ experiences, and looking within ourselves.
Works Cited
Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 13-14. Print.

Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 21-23. Print.
House, Eddie. “Depot Blues.” By Eddie James. 1942.

Charters, Samuel. “Workin’ on the Building: Roots and Influences.” Nothing But the Blues. Ed. Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Group, n.d. 19. Print.

House, Eddie. “Preachin’ the Blues.” By Eddie House. 1930.

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